Read Galatians 5:1, 13-25.

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)

Some people these days say that they are spiritual but not religious. I think the sentiment involves a desire not to be constrained to a particular set of beliefs or actions but to have the freedom to choose whatever sort of spiritual life seems most fulfilling. But what does it mean to “be spiritual”? What is a “spiritual life” and where can I get one?

Paul seems to get at this question by conceptually dividing people into two parts, “flesh” and “spirit.” “Flesh” is shorthand for baser desires—desires that lead to lasciviousness, gluttony, jealousy, anger, and the like. The desires of the spirit (Spirit?) lead to love, joy, peace, patience, and the rest of the fruit of the Spirit.

Paul has these two parts of each person at war with each other. They are opposed. And this opposition, this unfinished battle within you, is what prevents you from doing what you want. You wish to be kind, but impatience flares to anger. You intend to eat enough to give yourself strength for your tasks, but you end up stuffed and lethargic. At times, the flesh wins the battle.

However, winning a battle is not winning the war. Eventually, one of these parts will grow stronger, become dominant, become second nature. A person is spiritual when the spirit is in control. Such a person may still feel desires that, if permitted to continue, would grow into lasciviousness or gluttony or jealousy or anger, but they are immediately shut down by the spirit. Such a person follows the spirit or is led by the Spirit.

Eventually, the desires of the spirit become our desires. As we more completely and more thoroughly desire what the spirit desires, we are able to do just exactly whatever we want, because what we want is what the spirit wants. We are no longer under the law, no longer have to force ourselves to behave, no longer fail. We are free. The spiritual life is the life where the flesh is conquered and the spirit prevails.

Note that the firm decision to live the life of the spirit, persisted in, is the victory. The remaining transformation of feelings and habits and actions and other pockets of resistance is mop-up.

This all sounds well and good, but how do you get there? Paul says to run the race as though you intend to win. The outcome of this war between flesh and spirit has eternal consequences. Gather your resolve and put all that you have into killing the flesh.

Jesus says, “deny yourself.” One way to kill the flesh is to systematically deny it sustenance. Decide that you are going to eat only bread and water, be kind to your annoying neighbor, give money to the poor instead of buying that fancy thing, skip that TV show or novel that leaves you scattered, wear shabby clothes, allow others to think badly of you without defending yourself. Exercises such as these are not ways of earning salvation, they are exercises to help you to help God to help you to overcome the flesh and become spiritual.

This is the spiritual life: the freedom of no longer being a slave to the flesh. Having tasted something of God’s goodness, we freely choose to be led by the Spirit. We freely choose to serve, to love, to give because our spirit rules over our flesh, because the Holy Spirit is our spirit, because these are the things that it (he) desires.

Part of the motivation of the “spiritual but not religious” movement may be a desire for freedom, a desire not to be hemmed in by a set of required beliefs and rituals. Paul shares this desire for freedom, but true freedom is a freedom of knowledge and self-possession.


Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin College and the director of ccel.org and hymnary.org.